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Amid the Great Resignation, higher education is facing particularly high rates of employee burnout and possible attrition. But there are tangible ways college leaders can change workplace culture and increase worker retention, according to a new report from the American Council on Education

Offer competitive pay, benefits and work schedules

One of the biggest concerns across the higher education sector is employee pay. The median salary increase for all higher ed professionals equaled less than half of the inflation rate in 2021-2022. And only 37% of higher education workers said their pay allows them to live the lifestyle they would like, per a survey from consultant Grant Thornton.

College leaders can address salary concerns by offering competitive pay that keeps up with the cost of living and by giving salary ranges when advertising jobs, the ACE report said. To fully understand the job market they’re facing, colleges may need to conduct a salary analysis based on their geographic area, institution type or both.

It is also important that colleges promote all benefits available and assist employees in taking advantage of them. Benefits specific to colleges, like access to campus gyms, meal plans or tuition for employees and their dependents, can go a long way in retaining employees, the report said.

Another highly requested benefit is a hybrid work schedule with the ability to work remotely. Nearly 70% of surveyed college employees want to work remotely at least part time, but almost two-thirds are working mostly or completely on campus, according to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources

Colleges can allow employees to opt in to a hybrid schedule, letting them work remotely unless needed in person, the ACE report said. Staggering in-person schedules can ensure there’s someone on campus at all times, while allowing a majority of employees to work remotely.

On a departmental basis, supervisors could also let employees shift their 9-to-5 workday to the hours that work best for them, allowing for a stronger work-life balance. 

Don’t keep employees on call 24/7

With an increased shift to remote work, it can be tempting for managers to roll out new software and digital tools for collaboration. But many higher education employees are experiencing a technology overload, the report said, and being constantly available comes at the expense of both productivity and deep thinking.

Campus leaders should stick to email for written communication and reduce the use of chat programs like Slack or Microsoft Teams whenever possible, the ACE report said.

Higher education workers are often saddled with an expectation that they are always working or available, a significant cause of burnout, according to the report. A 2022 survey cited by the ACE found that two-thirds of higher ed employees who are not faculty regularly work outside of the standard workday.

College leaders should limit communication outside of standard work hours and model best practices by not contacting their staff when they should be off duty, the report said. They could also consider if a four-day workweek is possible on their campus. D’Youville College, a nonprofit institution in New York, for example, switched to a 32-hour workweek for some staff in an effort to attract workers and retain employees.

Value employees’ time

Managers should also consider limiting meetings and using them for brainstorming and idea creation rather than as tools for information sharing, the ACE report said. Some colleges have even instated meeting-free days.

By valuing employees’ time, the report said, colleges can help decrease the endless churn some workers feel after repeated time-intensive, low-productivity activities.

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